William Walsh’s debut novel, Without Wax, is the story of Wax Williams, legendary male porn star and “the 8th wonder of the world,” whose shy, down-to-earth demeanor endears him to female fans while also making him accessible to male fans. Dissatisfied with (and even afraid for) his life, Wax decides to retire at the pinnacle of his career. In keeping with documentary form and style, Walsh weaves together interview fragments, traditional narrative, depositions, Consumer Profiles, and the script of Wax’s first feature film. The novel is structured in such a way that is entertaining and compulsively readable, getting as close to watching its filmic incarnation as the written word will allow.
When Walsh’s characters talk sex, they are talking shop. They have no romantic illusions about their work: they are producing a product – in the same way other film makers aim to elicit a certain reaction from their audience, characters like Lyle Mammon try to produce footage that will make viewers horny. At one point Wax Williams says to a man selling sex-surveillance tapes of unwitting participants, “This stuff isn’t really pornography. . . . It’s not porno or erotica if the folks involved aren’t trying to make something pornographic or erotic. It’s just sex, and that’s nothing to look at.”
Walsh seems to have done his homework, but this novel is more than simply a show and tell of interesting facts and jargon inside the adult entertainment industry. Wax’s story is interesting, amazing, sad, and funny – a very American success story built on a misunderstanding. Again and again the characters attempt to explain the real Wax Williams.
TED ROMLING: Wax must have seen plainly that a career in pornography was the best possible option for him. He might be a sideshow attraction all his life, but that would have to do. He accepted it. A high school guidance counselor might have read Wax as a bright kid with below-average social skills. But I feel that this was a position that Wax adopted rather than a skill deficit. Wax played shy, reserved, constantly half-embarrassed, while at the same time above-it-all. He played it that way because he thought it was the best way to play it—or maybe it was the only way he could play it. Anyway, to Mammon, the boy was an enigma.
While it would have been easy to make Wax Williams some sort of mindless animal or heartless chauvinist, Walsh avoids this cliché and creates a character whose depth and complexity balances perfectly against the shallow façade of life in porn. Even with fame and money, Wax’s loneliness still haunts him, reducing him to a ghost living inside his own body. Wax is asked more than once what it’s like to see himself having sex on TV and he says, “It’s like putting on a mask and looking in a mirror.” Even Todd Insulin, the “PhD Candidate at Wadsworth University, Studying Group Behavior in Erotic Situations,” says, “Wax wore a mask of sorts when he performed, and he was sure to never let anyone see underneath that mask.” The most moving parts of the novel are when the reader gets those privileged glimpses behind that mask.
William Walsh succeeds on every level, entertaining while demonstrating his astute knowledge of the way people talk, act, and hide behind their words and actions. Without Wax is endlessly fascinating and compulsively readable. With the line between fiction and reality nearing extinction, and with the continuous, exponential improvements in CGI, the book has to compete more and more with cinema. While some writers bemoan the book’s perpetual slide into antiquity, William Walsh has stepped up to the challenge, bringing book and film together with effects that reach far beyond a theme that may seem like a mere marketing gimmick to create a fantastic debut novel.